The Color Line

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. 6 pages.
A lesson on the countless colonial laws enacted to create division and inequality based on race. This helps students understand the origins of racism in the United States and who benefits.

  • Time Periods: Colonization: 1492 - 1764, 18th Century | Themes: African American, Laws & Citizen Rights, Native American, Racism & Racial Identity, Slavery | Reading Levels: High School | Resource Types: Teaching Activities (Free)

The Color Line (Teaching Activity) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryColonial laws prohibiting blacks and whites from marrying one another suggest that some blacks and whites did marry. Laws imposing penalties on white indentured servants and enslaved blacks who ran away together likewise suggest that whites and blacks did run away together. Laws making it a crime for Indians and blacks to meet together in groups of four or more indicate that, at some point, these gatherings must have occurred. As Benjamin Franklin is said to have remarked in the Constitutional Convention, “One doesn’t make laws to prevent the sheep from planning insurrection,” because this has never occurred, nor will it occur.

The social elites of early America sought to manufacture racial divisions. Men of property and privilege were in the minority; they needed mechanisms to divide people who, in concert, might threaten the status quo. Individuals’ different skin colors were not sufficient to keep these people apart if they came to see their interests in common. Which is not to say that racism was merely a ruling class plot, but as Howard Zinn points out in chapters 2 and 3 of A People’s History of the United States, and as students see in this lesson, some people did indeed set out consciously to promote divisions based on race.

Because today’s racial divisions run so deep and can seem so normal, providing students an historical framework can be enlightening. We need to ask, “What are the origins of racial conflict?” and “Who benefits from these deep antagonisms?” A critical perspective on race and racism is as important as anything students will take away from a U.S. history course. This is just one early lesson in our quest to construct that critical perspective.

Published by Rethinking Schools.

Read “How American oligarchs created the concept of race to divide and conquer the poor” by Courtland Milloy in The Washington Post about a D.C. teacher’s use of the Color Line lesson.

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There are 3 comments by other visitors:

  • I have my students write an essay on how slavery changed from black and white to only black and use Howard Zinn’s Chapter 2 and 3 as supporting evidence. My students are always amazed at the origins of racism in North America. – Miroslaba Velo

    Response shared by Miroslaba Velo — January 14, 2010 @ 11:46 pm

  • I asked my students to create a timeline of slavery using Zinn’s chapter 2 and asked at least three questions so that they could use the timeline and online further research to answer these questions.

    Response shared by Lin Lin — June 24, 2011 @ 10:33 am

  • I had my students read chapter 2, then create board games where they made up laws that would “Divide and Conquer.” After playing the games, we took a look at actual laws to see if the students or the colonists were the most brutal.

    Response shared by Kathy Bounds — October 7, 2013 @ 6:27 pm

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